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Canh Chua Chay

Canh Chua

Vegetarian Hot and Sour Soup

  • 10 ounces mushroom vegetarian broth or vegetable broth
  • 20 ounces water 
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1 leek
  • 1 can pineapple chunks (with juice)
  • Bean Sprouts
  • Firm or extra firm tofu
  • Sugar
  • Soy sauce
  • Mushroom seasoning or salt
  • Black pepper
  • Cilantro

Bring water and broth to a boil.

While waiting for the soup to boil, chop tomatoes into chunks or wedges, cube tofu, and slice leeks thinly (white part only). Once the soup is boiling, add in half a can of pineapple juice—save the pineapple chunks for later. Let the soup continue to boil for 5 minutes with a lid on.

Season the soup with sugar, soy sauce, and mushroom seasoning to suit your palette. The end result should be sour, but not unpleasantly so. My grandma likes to add a dash of vinegar to intensify the soup’s sourness. Once the soup is well-seasoned, add in vegetables, tofu, and pineapples. The exact amount of vegetables, tofu, and pineapples added to the soup is dependent on the prefernce of the cook. 

Serve hot on top of rice and garnish with cilantro and a sprinkling of black pepper.

For Canh Chua Bac Ha, add button mushrooms and slices of bac ha, also known as Upright Elephant Ears, to the above recipe.

Ngự Viên

Ngự Viên—take three.

Slowly, but surely, we’re gonna eat our way through Ngự Viên’s extensive, Hue-inspired menu. Read about our first account here and our second one here.

Cathy’s mom was in town a few weeks back for the Tet holiday and desired traditional Vietnamese rice dishes for lunch. After little debate, Zach, The Astronomer and I decided that Ngự Viên would be the perfect place to satisfy her craving.

We ordered two of our standbys (ca hu kho and goi mit) and tried four new dishes—clockwise from top left: hen xao (54,000 VND), chao tom (30,000 VND each), bo xoi xao toi (21,000 VND), and canh chua tien (48,000 VND).

Like all standbys ought to be, the ca kho and goi mit were superb. By the way, the best way to distinguish a good ca kho from a great one is the uncontrollable desire to sop up every last bit of caramelized goodness with rice once the fish has disappeared. Mmm, boy!

Of the new dishes, the canh chua tien was a true standout. While the most common version of canh chua (sour soup) is mildly tangy and heavy on pineapples, this version was spicy and contained thin slices of rough bamboo shoots. The soup’s fiery hotness came courtesy of some strong chili powder that really hit the back of my throat.

The hen xao—small clams sauteed with glass noodles and herbs—were served with sesame rice crackers as an appetizer. Perhaps a little too similar to goi mit to be eaten side-by-side, the hen xao was tasty nevertheless.

The chao tom—grilled shrimp paste wrapped around sugarcane—took a good 45 minutes to arrive because Ngự Viên makes them from scratch.  Fair enough, but our waiter insisted on coursing the meal with the slowpoke dish second.  As a result, we spent over half an hour staring at an empty table after polishing off our appetizers. Timing aside, the chao tom were definitely good. However, at 30,000 each, they were not worth the price or wait.

Cathy desired some greenery and ordered the bo xoi xao toi. None of us knew what bo xoi was and our waiter could not provide any insight. The leafy greens tasted like a cross between morning glory, spinach, and bok choy and were slightly bitter. Sauteed in copious cloves of garlic and oil, the mysterious bo xoi served its purpose well.

Vegetation Profile: Elephant Ear

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Bac ha is the Vietnamese name for an Asian vegetable which is known by a variety of names in English including taro stem and elephant ear. The scientific name for the plant is Alocasia odora. The plant is native to Southeast Asia, and is available from Asian markets and specialty stores. It is also possible to grow bac ha at home, since it is often used as an ornamental plant in temperate and tropical gardens.

The plant is in the same family as taro, which leads some consumers to confuse the two. The use of “taro stems” to describe bac ha increases the confusion. However, the edible part of bac ha is the stems, not the corms, as is the case with taro. Although bac ha corms can be eaten, the primary reason for cultivating the plant is the fleshy long stalks, not the corms. Just like with taro, however, bac ha must be carefully cooked before consumption, or the plant can stimulate an allergic reaction.

I can’t believe this is the first vegetable I’ve profiled. What can I say? Fruits are my fave.

I found these beautiful stalks of bac ha at an outdoor market in the city of Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta this past weekend. I was taken aback by how long they were; the tropical climate in Vietnam sure is amazing for growing hefty produce.

I only know of one dish that features bac ha and it’s a delightful soup called canh chua. I’ve mentioned my love for this soup many times on gas•tron•o•my. When cooked, the texture of bac ha becomes very sponge-like and tastily soaks up the soup’s sour notes. Although I’ve never tasted raw bac ha, I imagine it to be a bit like celery—crunchy, loaded with water and a bit tasteless.

Meatless in Saigon

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Mock Meats and Tofu Treats—clockwise from upper left: bean curd with mustard greens, thit heo quay, xoi ga chay, canh chua

One would imagine that in a society where roughly 85% of the people are practicing Buddhists, vegetarian restaurants could be found on every corner. While this may be true in some parts of Asia, it is certainly not the case in Saigon, where eateries specializing in com chay are few and far between.

Exceptions to this general trend appear on the first and fifteenth of each Lunar Calendar month, when all Buddhists shy away from meat. On these particularly auspicious days, nearly all workers’ lunch establishments (com binh dan) serve vegetarian options.

Whereas vegetarian cuisine in the West often means a bland plate of grilled vegetables or strange faux meat products, Vietnamese vegetarian fare sticks to familiar flavors and ingredients. Unlike scientifically derived products such as Tofurkey and Boca Burgers, which tend to leave eaters feeling deprived, the fresh vegetables and soy products employed at com chay restaurants are skillfully transformed into wholly satisfying delights.

One of the best features of vegetarian establishments in town is their extensive menus. From rice entrees to noodle soups, it seems that every Vietnamese dish can be deliciously vegetarian-ized.

For those seeking meatless fare for dietary reasons, religious leanings, or just personal preference, there are a handful of well-run and exciting Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants in the city worth getting to know. Just a warning, there is a good chance that you will be dining next to a group of Buddhist nuns or monks while digging into a hearty plate of meatless goodness.

Quan An Chay
174 Calmette Street, District 1
This vegan-friendly eatery features a casual buffet where diners can pick and choose items that suit their fancy. The buffet selections change daily, which always keeps things interesting. The price of the meal depends on the weight of food.

Huong Vien
101 Vuon Chuoi Street, District 3
Huong Vien’s specialty is vegetarian renditions of Vietnamese classics such as pho, lau (hot pot), and bun rieu. The xoi ga chay (sticky rice with “chicken”) is especially stellar and unbelievably similar to the meaty xoi ga and xoi man sold street-side. A plate of xoi ga chay is priced at VND4,000. Another winning dish is the banh hoi thit nuong (vermicelli noodle cakes topped with grilled “pork”). The meaty mouth-feel and smoky marinade of the soy “pork” is nothing short of excellent. A heaping portion of banh hoi thit nuong is priced at VND10,000.

Lien Hoa
004 C/c Doan Van Bo Street, District 4
Lien Hoa serves Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine at rock-bottom prices. At VND10,000 per dish, one can eat healthily and economically. House specialties include banh beo chay (steamed rice cakes) and banh bao chay (steamed buns).

Giac Duc
492 Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, District 3
A must-try treat at Giac Duc is the thit heo quay (barbecued pork). The dish looks and tastes so ridiculously pork-like, it is hard to believe that no swine were harmed in the process. The true genius of this dish lies in the tapioca film that brilliantly fakes the layer of fat found in real thit heo quay. A portion for two is priced at VND10,000. Giac Duc also makes one of the best canh chua (sweet and sour soup) in town. The VND5,000 bowl of soup is brimming with okra, elephant ears, tomatoes, and bean sprouts.

Tiem Com Chay Phap Hoa I
200 Nguyen Trai Street, District 1
Extremely popular with the local crowd, Phap Hoa prepares a large selection of Vietnamese specialties and dishes employing mock meat. Although the ambiance is bare bones, the friendly staff and solid food more than make up for it.

Thanh Luong
545A Ba Thang Hai Street, District 10
Although Thanh Luong’s menu is slightly limited compared to the others, the quality of the food is first-class. The best way to enjoy Thanh Luong’s offerings is by ordering a variety of dishes and plenty of steamed rice. The dau hu xa (lemongrass tofu) and bean curd with mustard greens are solid choices. “Sardines” wrapped in seaweed, one of the more interesting menu items, taste surprisingly fishy for a creation made entirely inland.

An Lac Chay
175/4 Pham Ngu Lao Street, District 1
In the heart of the backpacker quarter, An Lac’s main clientele are travelers and local families. The restaurant prepares both Vietnamese and international cuisine and according to locals, An Lac’s pizza is most excellent.

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Two Huong Vien regulars enjoying a meat-free lunch

Cơm Tấm

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September and October 2007
Cuisine: Vietnamese

Corner of Dien Bien Phu Street and CMT8
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: unknown
Website: none

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Com Tam Bi Cha Trung Opla – broken rice with shredded pork, pork loaf and sunnyside up egg

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Muc Nhoi Thit – squid stuffed with ground meat

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Com Tam Thit Nuong – broken rice with BBQ pork

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Com Tam Bi Thit Nuong – broken rice with shredded pork and BBQ pork

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Canh Chua, Mam Chung, Com Tam, Ca Kho – sweet and sour soup, fish loaf, broken rice, braised fish

The Astronomer: By my estimates, The Gastronomer and I have now eaten over 100 restaurant meals in Vietnam, and rarely have we regretted our choice of venue. Truly, the consistent quality of the offerings in Saigon is amazing. Of the few disappointments we’ve experienced, most fell under the category of com binh dan. Literally meaning “worker’s lunch,” this genre is the most popular midday meal among the laborers of Saigon. It consists of a relatively basic plate of rice, complemented by a few small pieces of meat (selected from a display cart at the front of the restaurant) and perhaps a vegetable. If the meat or fish is good, it can be a treat, but too often the protein source is mediocre, the greens are bitter, and the place is a bit too dirty for even our taste.

To put it another way, com binh dan eateries seem to have a difficult time matching the quality of meals at our favorite neighborhood vegetarian spots, even though they have the unfair advantage of being allowed to use meat. However, we have found one exception in District 3—Com Tam. From the first time I walked by, I knew this place was special. The tables are a little higher, the clientèle’s tastes a bit more discerning, and the food up front just looks more delicious than the typical com binh dan. Normally I’ll only see one or two meat dishes that pique my interest, but at Com Tam it was hard to decide. Thankfully, I returned several times and got to try multiple treats.

The culinary appeal of Com Tam starts with the rice. I really love com tam. While I recently learned that it is cheaper and perhaps considered less desirable by the Vietnamese than other varieties of rice, I find it to be far superior in most cases. Its short, broken grains lead to a drier texture than that of standard long-grain rice, and it complements certain entrees, such as the Gastronomer’s dau hu xa, extremely well.

The soup was also a nice bonus; in contrast to the watered-down bowl of foul-tasting vegetable matter that accompanies a typical com binh dan meal, diners at Com Tam are treated to a small, but satisfying bowl of canh chua (featuring okra, upright elephant ears, and perhaps some tomatoes in a delicious mild broth). However, it was the meat offerings that drew me into the restaurant, and they didn’t disappoint.

Among my favorite entrees were the thit nuong (chargrilled pork slabs) and bi cha (thin strands of pork served with a yellowish, pork-based meat loaf). Most often served with bun (rice noodles), thit nuong is one of my all-time favorite Vietnamese preparations. The barbecued surfaces of the meat have a truly wonderful flavor, which is further enhanced by a few spoonfuls of nuoc mam. The thit nuong at Com Tam came in bigger slabs than I’m used to—there were even a few bones involved—but the taste and texture were amazing as always.

Several years ago, long before we arrived in Vietnam, The Gastronomer informed me that com tam bi cha was her favorite Vietnamese dish. While this may have changed (based on her current ordering habits, I would be inclined to nominate xoi ga chay), it certainly has a special appeal for both of us. Bi is one of the simplest pork preparations—on its own I would go so far as to say that it’s a bit boring—but it turns out to be the perfect vehicle for nuoc mam. Once fish sauce has been applied, there are few things better. I’m not the biggest fan of cha, but it’s fairly tasty and serves as a nice textural diversion from the bi. Both the bi and cha at Com Tam were among the best I’ve tried.

During our repeat visits to the restaurant, The Gastronomer and I sampled a number of other entrees, including braised fish, sunny-side up eggs, and stuffed squid. Crammed to gills with meat, the squid seemed like quite a luxury for only 10,000 VND, but in hindsight the combination of flavors was not terribly memorable.

Sadly, in the past week the restaurant seems to have disappeared. Quite strange, but totally typical here. It used to be housed along with a bun bo hue cart in a gated area in front of a dermatologist’s office, and then one day everything was gone—the food carts, the people, the tables, the chairs. Maybe the family just went on vacation, or maybe they’re never coming back. There are so many eating options to choose from, I could never miss any one place too much, but still, it’d be a shame…

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